Ep: 29: Demystifying Pooling Odor

Mar 16, 2020

Pooling odor: a thing that competitors fret about in competition. But what IS pooling odor REALLY?

We sit down with Michael McManus, CAPE, CATT, CNWI in this podcast episode to discuss this topic, how training approaches may affect a dog's ability to work through a pooling odor problem, how inaccessible hides may worsen the issue and much more!


  • Dianna L. Santos
  • Michael McManus


Welcome to the All About Scent Work podcast. In this podcast, we talk about all things scent work that can include training tips, a behind the scenes look of what your instructor or travel official may be going through and much more.

In this episode we're going to be talking about pooling odor with Michael McManus, trying to have a better understanding of what pooling odor is, how may be able to work through it, what may be causing issues with it, as well as some shoot off discussions.

Before we start diving into the podcast episode itself, I'm just going to do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I am the owner and lead instructor for Scent Work University, Dog Sport University, Canine Fitness University and Family Dog University. These are online dog training platforms that are designed to provide high quality dog training instruction to as many people as possible and we're very fortunate to have a client basis worldwide.

For Scent Work University in particular, we concentrate on all things scent work, so that includes helping you throughout the entirety of your scent work training career, whether it be first getting started, developing some more advanced skills or getting ready for trial. We do this by providing online courses, webinars, a regularly updated blog and podcasts, like what you're listening to today. So you should know a little more about me, let's dive into the podcast episode.

So unfortunately when we were having this discussion, we were not able to capture the audio at the very beginning of the conversation. Technology Grumman's be damned. But what Michael was discussing at the very beginning of this conversation is how pooling odor can really befuddle some people because they don't really have a proper understanding of it, of what pooling odor actually is and what they may be seeing. So what he's discussing in this next clip is how there is this discrepancy between what you may see in competition and then what you may actually see in training. Also, depending on how it is that you may train. So I'll allow Michael to explain it. He does a much better job than I would be able to.

Michael McManus: But it's just hitting a surface and that hitting of a surface is enough for a dog to show interest in it and then compound that, either the dog does not know whether or not that's a rewardable object or moment or the handler doesn't know how to read their dog's behavior and then calls an alert and then we have to go into whether or not that alert is considered correct or incorrect, which is different in a variety of situations.

Dianna L. Santos: So those are all really good points for I think people to keep in mind is that first of all, the fact that we don't really have a clear definition of what pooling odor is, that it may depend on whether or not you are either just in the training phase or if you are competing. And that I think is something we can definitely talk about in this episode of how competition can kind of distort what would otherwise be correct or what would otherwise be acceptable because the dog is probably right, and that there is such a disconnect between what those things are and then what the dog may actually do, what they think, what they perceive and then what we're supposed to do as a response.

Michael McManus: These issues are really brought into focus when you look at the discrepancy between dogs who are preparing for competition and dogs who are starting on primary. So there are certain issues that are just a nonissue for dogs on primary. That is food or toys.

So for example, pooling odor is a great example. How many times have you actually witnessed a dog struggle with a pooling odor problem on food or a toy? It's almost never. It's almost never an issue in the dog's head about whether or not they've achieved the source of the odor or not. The same holds true about residual odor. Residual odor, I've seen dogs notice residual odor on food, but never alert on residual food odor or be significantly distracted by it.

Converging odor is another one and the last one is close hides, which is an elite challenge, right? But it's an elite challenge that's so simple that a trainer wouldn't even think to set it in the primary class.

Dianna L. Santos: And that's a very good point of how there is such this big disconnect once you have that really it makes you so much more sense for the dog when they're able to self reward because obviously the source is the reward. So they can go, they can eat their cookie, they can go and they can play with their toy and it makes perfect sense. But when you start going into the areas where now they're just trying to find a target odor where maybe it may not be paired or there may be differences as far as where you reward and when your reward and everything else, it gets so much more muddied.

And the thing I would love for you to talk about is what you see as far as how you've helped your own students kind of bridge that gap where maybe they did start with primary, maybe they did do some pairing and maybe now they're fading the pairing because they are worried about, well, I don't have pairing at trial. What do I do? So maybe you could talk through that a little bit.

Michael McManus: Sure. So the one thing I'll preface this by is that this problem is made even worse by the fact that whenever we practice inaccessible hides, we are rewarding the dog for alerting on pooling odor or another way to put it is alert. We're rewarding the dog for fringing so that it really makes the problem really unclear to the dog.

But basically the way I deal with this with my students is one, we almost never do inaccessible hides. There's always a very clear go to source mentality from the beginning and you'd think that that makes inaccessible hides difficult, but it actually doesn't. In the same way that the dog never is confused when the tennis ball rolls under the furniture or a treat rolls under the couch, they're never confused by that. They're never struggle with the fact of telling you it's under the furniture. That just doesn't happen. They just go under there and struggle to get it or communicate with you to tell you to get it out for them.

It's only a problem when we go to odor where we tell them that the source is not actually important, that I'm actually going to reinforce you without trying to get to the source. So the near complete elimination of inaccessible hides from training fixes that for my students and what we replace it with is very difficult to access hides that are completely accessible so that we push the dog to strive to get to the source and it for all practical purposes, mimics an inaccessible hide with the exception that we expect the dog to make their way to source. And when you get to a competition, what that looks like is a dog who strives to attain a source and they're unable to because it's inaccessible. And so then it's onto the handler is if this were accessible, would my dog have got it by now? And if the answer is yes, then you should've called alert already. So that's how I deal with the inaccessible problem.

Now, in terms of pairing, this is a harder one to sell people on, but the best thing I can say is that I never stopped pairing with my own dogs. I pair because it makes my dog edgier and faster. It doesn't make it easier for the dog. That's not why I pair. I think a lot of people who pair, they pair because they think they've set something too hard and if they pair it, it'll make it easier. If that's the reason you're pairing, I think you're missing out on the actual advantages of pairing. The advantage of pairing is that it makes the dog less handler focused and more odor focused because you're not the one paying them. It's the odor that pays them.

That said, we do still pay them, but their primary goal instead of when they struggle looking to us for help, they go straight back to the environment to get help from the environment itself. I pair because I like winning, the same way I train my competitive obedience and agility with treats and toys because I like winning. I can't take toys and treats in the ring when I do obedience and agility, but I train with them because they make my dog faster and edgier and showier when I go to the trial and so I feel the same way about pairing and nose work. I pair because it just makes my dog better.

Dianna L. Santos: And that's a really good explanation about pairing that I think is lost a lot in translation. I know that I've struggled personally with trying to, even though I've talked about it at length, I've done webinars on it, still trying to get people to understand the value of it and that it's not simply a stage because I think that's a very human way of looking at things. I've done step one. Now I go on to step two. My dog isn't a baby dog anymore. I don't have to do that.

So the one thing I would love for you to talk about is you were saying how you make the hides more difficult to be accessible instead of doing truly inaccessible hides, but the dog can still get to them. Can you talk a little bit more in detail about how you do that and then what happens? So what is it that you're looking for in the dog? Because for instance, there's been a video that has been going around on social media lately where they're basically using upright training. Not to say yay or nay, but the dog is clearly frustrated because they have clearly indicated where this hide is at the back of this cabinet and the person rewards them. But then they stand there and stare at them until the dog quite literally crawls into the cabinet backend first because now they're throwing different behaviors at them because now they think that they're doing a shaping session of, well clearly me finding the odor wasn't good enough. Maybe putting my butt in this cabinet is enough. So can you talk about how it is that you're actually setting it up of what it is you're looking for in the dog and also for the handler?

Michael McManus: Yeah, sure. That's a really great point. I think because of my background and the way I got into dog training, I came at dog training from a different perspective. So the vast majority of people that I come across came into it from often a shelter background that they worked with shelter dogs and or obedience. Nose work is new, right? A lot of people didn't do that before recently, and so they had obedience and agility. And so their whole modality of interacting with dogs was about altering or building behavior chains, altering behaviors and doing these kinds of things from a very operant conditioning point of view.

I was very fortunate that when I started doing dog training, I basically jumped right into sheep herding and nose work where it's not so much about building behavior tans and changing your dog's behavior. It's more about you're stepping into the dog's world. So it's an ethological way of looking at the dog is we're dumping into their natural environment. We need to observe, we need to create environments for them to thrive and display their natural behavior that they have within them.

So I can pull out, like in that case that you described a cabinet, right, and with a hide in the back of it and it's really far in and I could shape my dog to go there mechanically. I could do that. Or I could just put a hot dog back there and let the dog do it on his own. One's an operant way of doing it, one's an ethology way of doing it. Now that said, it's not like there's no shaping involved when you're looking at it from an ecological perspective and it's not like there's no ethology happening when you're doing it from an operating conditioning point of view, I think it's more about the emphasis. The emphasis is there's a hot dog, let's let the dog exercise their own behavior as opposed to teaching the dog to work the handler to extract reinforces from them, which is the operant way of looking at it, like the dog's trying to figure out how get the reinforcer from the handler.

And so when I'm describing making difficult to access hides, that's what I'm talking about. It's like there's a hotdog back there. How are you going to get it? The way dogs learn on their own when there's no human presence to steal food off the counters. There's no one sitting there with a clicker training them to steal food off counters. They're doing that all on their own and all we need to do is set hides like that, like the food on the counter that we put really far out of reach to try to avoid them getting it and the dog figures it out. They figure out how to lead. If you've seen, to contrast that to another video is the beagle who pulls the chair in from the dining room into the kitchen to access the counter. Right? I'm sure many of you guys have seen that video and no one shaped the dog to do that. At least to my knowledge, they didn't shape it. That was just pure, there's a problem. How am I going to solve it? And guess what? He's a predator. He can solve it.

Dianna L. Santos: Excellent point. So basically what I'm trying to make sure that people understand is that in the way that you're describing it, particularly in the beginning, is that the dog is able, they're not relying on the handler with how you're describing it.

Michael McManus: There's almost no input from the handler.

Dianna L. Santos: Right, exactly. So I think that's the big disconnect is, so there are people probably listening to this be like, "Okay, I want to listen to this podcast because I want to know more about pooling order. We talked about for two seconds." Don't worry, you guys are going to get back to it. But now I'm getting ready to compete. I don't use food anymore. I'm not using pairing. This doesn't help me. So how do you then suggest for those people, what should they do? So they are now on odor alone. Are you of the camp that they are absolutely able to go back to pairing and or going back to primary if they have a really bad problem or are you, no, that's absolutely not possible. You must just stay on odor and just struggle. What's your take on that?

Michael McManus: Yeah, so I think pairing is just an awesome thing that you can throw in and take away whenever you want. I just don't take it away with my dogs because again, I just like winning. I like blue ribbons. I like going fast. I like showing up all of the Malinois, putting them to shame with my Siberian Husky who is 12 years old in the middle of summer. Right? That's just something I enjoy. That said, going back to primary, there's some debate on, I've been told and taught for many years that once you're on odor don't go back to food. And I've never gotten a satisfactory why. It has something to do with food distractions and it's like, well if it's really about food distractions, couldn't we just train it later and fix it later, because we start them on primary. So doesn't that already screw them up in terms of food distractions, right? How does that really hurt?

So that one I'm experimenting with right now. I retired my Husky from competition, I don't know, two years ago or what year and a half ago and she's been on food, pure food, no odor for a year now. And I'm kind of curious about throwing her into an element trial or an AKC trial to see if I've lost anything. Is my dog ruined now because I want to put to test some of these things that I'd been taught that I had no backing for.

So I think at least pairing there is zero risk to going back to pairing. Some people will point out potential risks like, "Oh what if my dog does become more interested in food distractions?" It's like, well, that's a food distraction problem. You should train food distraction drills to fix that. It has nothing to do with pairing. And what if my dog shows a different response when it's not paired? That usually has to do with a lack of understanding of classical conditioning and what the timescales are, how classical conditioning works. It's like if you're pairing consistently enough, the response when there's nothing there, it remains, just like Pavlov rings the bell, the dog still salivates. We're trying to classically condition a response to odor. So that should happen. And that it might also be that I always supplement when the dog finds it, they find a pair of treats, they get more treats from me so that we get the best of both worlds. We get the best of the operant and the best of the classical world if you do it right, but there is some play there and some things that can go wrong and I think the best thing to do is to work with a skilled trainer to guide you through that kind of minefield. But does that kind of answer that question?

Dianna L. Santos: Yes. I think that your answer was absolutely spot on as far as how people would be able to better think about using both primary and pairing just very quickly. I will say for myself personally with Valor, he had been trained up for, I think almost three and a half years. We'd already started competing. Then I started doing videos for our courses where I was starting him back at the beginning, so he was just on primary. It made him better. It improved his overall enthusiasm and improved his competition. So I have not personally seen an issue. It's not as though he was like, "Oh well now I'm just going to go care about bagels and boxes." That never happened. It actually improved overall.

Michael McManus: Yeah. You know, it's funny too because in terms of the food distraction problem, I actually have this on video. The first search I did with Lumi after her retirement where it was just food only, I put a pile of hot dogs and sausages and cheeses up in the search area. It was a very small search area. I unclipped leash. I told her search and I just did still let her work it out. She searched for about two minutes and then came right back to me and started barking at me. It was the weirdest thing. I was not nowhere in my realm of imagination to think this was possible, but she ignored a gigantic pile of food assuming that there was odor out there to be found. Even though I pair almost every hide, she still assumed that that pile of treats because it didn't have odor in it, I guess, was not in play. And I had to actually tell her go get it and then she ran to it and ate it. But it was very bizarre.

Dianna L. Santos: And that is actually very interesting and that's something that I've seen in clients in that once they make this, not the switch but graduate, however you want to explain it, of going from primary to now we're pairing, that when we start working on food distractors, oftentimes people are like, "Well, I want to just do odor alone." It's like, "Fine, we'll do some hides that are odor alone," and the dog understands that, okay, well that food distraction that's in a box, there's no odor with it, but the odor that's out, that's what I'm getting paid for. The dog seems to understand that odor with food is pairing. That's mine. That's my reward. That's great. Food that's by itself when there's also odor out here, that is not part of the game. They're actually fairly smart little creatures. They're able to figure this stuff out.

So to go for the pooling piece, how is it that you pick up or set up your training exercises when you're working with people either in helping them understand what may be happening in the space, helping them understand what pooling actually is, working on it, if they are having that issue with their dog. How is it that you actually set it up in training?

Michael McManus: Sure. So one thing that I always tell my students is that pooling odor problems are almost universally an accident. They happen when you set a hide and you expect it to work one way and it does something different. And that's almost every trainer I talk to, it's almost always the same. And it happens all the time in trial where an odor ends up pooling in a certain way and it's almost always that the CO did not expect it and did not want it to happen. And it fortunately it makes a lot of dogs tank.

So the first thing I say is I'm not good at that about setting them. I know some trainers who can intentionally set up pooling odor problems and they know exactly how the wind is going to move the odor and how long to cook the odor before running it. And they know all that stuff. I do not. I'm not good at that kind of thing. I'm too lazy. I usually don't cook odor because I don't think far enough ahead to cook the odor before class and things like that.

So what I do is I work on residual odor problems instead because for all practical purposes, residual odor replicates what a pooling odor problem looks like. It's just a collection of odor that is not source. And so that's very easy to set up. I put out a odor, I wait five, 10 minutes, however long I want it to cook. Before I run the dog, I move the odor and the dog comes into the room and if they haven't done this kind of training before, they will put pay interest into the residual spot. And I will just, again, from an ethology point of view, I do nothing. I just stand there and I wait for the dog to process this information on their own. The same way I let my hunting dog process the information of a spot where a bird was and no longer is there. I just let them sniff it around and he goes, "Oh, there's no bird here," and moves on. The dog does the same thing.

Some dogs, if you've had a long history of rewarding on pooling odor, some dogs will hard alert there and try to sell you on it because they're not trying to get the odor. They're trying to get the treat from you. And in that case you just have to wait longer. You just got to wait and eventually the dog will give up, move to the odor, find the actual source of the odor, and you'll pay them and hopefully it was paired so they'll pay themselves and it doesn't take very long. Two, three sessions and the dog is pretty quickly making a decision. Pool, pool, residual, residual. There's a source and it just makes your life so much easier when you go to trial and instead of worrying about pools of odor, you say, nah, my dog has got this. He'll tell me if it's pool.

Dianna L. Santos: That is a very good way of describing it and also describing the way that honestly most people train as far as, yeah, I'm not going to set up my search area five hours ahead of time, let it cook and then all I'm also going to be setting up all these fans and things everywhere else. Right. And the thing is that I think that I have suggested doing things like that. I played around with it myself, but again, I work from home. I have 24 hours a day available to me. I'm not trying to rush home from work, put kids to bed, and also their nonsense. I have no life, so I'm able to do this stuff. Most people don't and they don't have that kind of time to do it.

Michael McManus: And don't get me wrong. It's a good thing to do if you have the time for it, if you've got a good weekend to train, go for it. Right. But don't think that if you don't have the time to do this stuff that you don't have the ability to train as you absolutely can. I mean I recommended cooking odor one time to class and there was a light bulb moment for them. They hadn't even considered it even though I'd mentioned it in the past, they hadn't considered it until recently because they had just done a trial and one of my students came back and she said, "This is the first time I've ever done this." I set out odor, I left it for an hour and then I ran it and it took my dog 20 minutes to find an easy hide, because I'd never done it before.

And so it's like it could be that simple of a cook process and if you have a plan for it, all you got to do is set odor before you go to bed and then in the morning run it or set odor before you go to work in a room separate from where the dog is or outside where the dog doesn't have access to it, not at a public park and then come when you get home from work, run it. That's good six hours of cook timer longer depending on how long you work.

Dianna L. Santos: And that's a very good point that there are ways that you can do it, but I also think the way that you're talking with as far as moving a hide of dealing with residual odor is a very important thing to do and that people may actually be doing that right now if they're practicing at home without even realizing it, where they may be doing one session immediately followed by another one while you've probably moved your hide and you probably have noticed that your dog noticed where the other hide was, and that's also just the dog being smart of saying, "Well, did you happen to move it? Oh you didn't? Okay, well let me go see where it is now."

Michael McManus: And all nose work trainers know this from their own classes because you got three, four classes in a row and the first hides class, they're beginner and then intermediate and then whatever, however you structure class and so you've got food hides out and then you replace those with odor hides for the next class and then you move those hides for the next class. You're seeing all the dogs come in, the dogs who have worked those hides, maybe they take two classes in a row or not, or they're fresh and you can see the dogs.

I would say that the only time it creates an issue is A, if a dog comes in who is not used to that, who's always worked in a very pristine environment, which I know a lot of you guys train in pristine, pristine, pristine environments, gloves and tweezers and all of these crazy things, hazmat suit just to set out a birch hide for something. I don't do that. I train dirty. I just use my bare fingers when I'm placing Q-tips. I know sacrilege, but just you see that when you're in class and you watch the dogs run it, that the by and large the dogs don't notice and dogs who do notice, it's minute. It's only comes into play if the handler happens to know that's where residual was and then they feed back to the dog and cause a false. But if the handler does not know, and you've probably seen it with potty searches, if you know where a dog has peed, you're way more likely to cause a problem than if you don't know that a dog has peed. It's just you just create the problem in your head. It's a self fulfilling prophecy.

Dianna L. Santos: And that is another excellent point that it is, which I think people feel badly about right, is that as the handler they are adding in additional layers of complexity to this because there are these feedback loops and then these poor people when you tell them that they're like, "Oh no," so how do I prevent myself from reacting? And then it just gets even worse. And this is where in class I think it's helpful to surprise people sometimes as far as when I was still doing it in person, they weren't allowed to see where the second part of their search was. So there would be one search where we would all talk about, we would all see and whatever else they would run that and then the entire group would go over, because there would be people watching their dogs being crates and then the person working would come in and they would just be like, oh, because it'd be changed every single run.

And they just had no idea what was going to be faced to them. They would know where a couple of hides were and they wouldn't even know that there was an unknown hide and they would go, their dog would find it and they'd be like, "Oh, I think my dog found a hide." Well, then you should probably call alert, you know? So it really is such a delicate balance for the whole spectrum as far as the handlers are definitely stressed because they feel as though they don't know what's going on and then when do tell them what's going on that they are affecting it, then they feel badly and then it stresses them out more and then the instructor doesn't know how to relay the information properly to them. I think it's this ongoing problem.

Michael McManus: Yeah, no, I think the most important thing that needs to be said about that is, just don't take it quite so seriously. I mean, you're messing with your dog all day long and they live, they're going to live through this, I promise you. Yes. Work on being a better handler who doesn't influence the dog. Work on being a better trainer who trains a dog who doesn't care about handler influence, right? Both the training and handling are both important, but most importantly, don't take it so seriously. You're just training the dog to find hotdogs. It's not the end of the world. Let's just have some fun and don't worry too much about it. When your trainer points it out, just okay. Take that into account. Try to change your behavior. Don't take it personally.

Dianna L. Santos: We want to thank Michael for being part of this podcast and by having this really important discussion with us regarding pooling odor and other important topics. We hope that you found this webinar helpful. Happy training and we look forward to seeing you soon.

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